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Ahead of the Curve: A Critical Assessment of PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2020

Ahead of the Curve: A Critical Assessment of PMI's Pulse of the Profession 2020

This year’s PMI Pulse of the Profession Report is titled: ‘Ahead of the Curve: Forging a Future-Focused Culture’.

Two things stand out for me.

First is that ‘Ahead of the Curve’ follows the new format that PMI established last year. 2019’s Pulse of the Profession, ‘The Future of Work’ broke with the pattern of earlier years.

The Future of Work was a short report putting forward a clear thesis. It interpreted PMI’s findings and made a strong case for the future of Project Management. PMI took the pulse of the profession and made a compelling diagnosis.

This year’s Pulse of the Profession is also a short (8 page) interpretation. It also makes its case for how PMI sees the future of our profession based on the new findings. But that brings me to the second and more important thing that stands out for me…

‘Ahead of the Curve’ is Behind the Curve

Ahead of the Curve: A Critical Assessment of PMI's Pulse of the Profession 2020

This is not like last year’s report in a different respect. That made a compelling case that was provocative, interesting, and largely moved the debate forwards.

This year, what we have is dull, clichéd, and follows arguments many of us have been making for 20 years. This year’s Pulse of the Profession is a massive disappointment. It shows a doctor diagnosing what the patient already knows.

Let’s Examine what ‘Ahead of the Curve’ gives us

Ahead of the curve gives us three things:

  1. Some interesting (though not profoundly useful) statistics.
    …That are supported three graphics
  2. Four familiar-looking arguments.
    …That are supported by solid mini-case studies and a few compelling quotes
  3. Three conclusions that any group of Project Managers could have come up with, taking ten minutes chatting in a bar.
    …Which is not to say they are wrong, or weak: just predictable and familiar.

Take a look for yourself…

PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2020 report is available for free download on the PMI website.

Ahead of the Curve: Interesting Statistics

As always, I shall avoid quoting all of the interesting statistics in this report – that would be unfair to PMI, who sends a lot of time and money gathering the data: read the report for all of them.

There are more than last year, I think, but certainly fewer than in previous years.

You’ll find the:

  • Top three factors that executive leaders see as most important for future success (page 2)
  • Skills (high level only) organizations most value in developing talent to deliver successful projects (page 3)
  • Two main areas for likely investment over the next 3 to 5 years (page 3)
  • Four highest priority components of organizational culture (page 4)
  • Evidence to support the value of a mature project management culture (page 5)

Agility First

The data PMI offers suggest that they are right to list the importance agility ahead of their other conclusions. It is the top factor that organizational leaders attribute as causal to future success (35 percent) and the second-highest priority in terms of organizational culture (53 percent) after delivering customer value (70 percent).

Ahead of the Curve: Familiar Arguments

First I want to explain my allegation that this document is full of clichés. Here are some examples:

  • ‘At a time of extraordinary change…’
    We all know that – and we’ve also been experiencing it for 20, 30, 40, 50… years
  • ‘Project Managers will be required to face far more than the triple constraint of scope, time, and budget’
    When has that ever been more than a small part of our role?
  • ‘In an era where the customer is king…’
    The customer has always been king. Even in ancient Mesopotamia. Come on PMI… You can do better than this.
  • ‘senior executives are increasingly recognizing the need for highly sklled project leaders.’
    Yes, they are, and have been increasingly recognizing that need for as long as I can recall.

And look at the cover photo. If that’s not a clichéd stock image…

Ahead of the Curve: forging a Future-focused Culture
Ahead of the Curve. PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2020 report.

Come on, PMI, you have the resources and talent to do better.

The Four Arguments…

The four arguments that Ahead of the Curve makes are all sound. My argument is with the lack of meat to them. They don’t advance the debate, because we’ve heard them all before, many times. There is no new take, nor critical analysis.

In my own interpretation, here are the four arguments PMI makes:

  1. We need to build agile, technology-savvy organizations and project capabilities.
  2. Project managers need leadership, business, and digital skills as well as our core technical project management skills.
  3. We need to apply Design Thinking to ensure we focus on what our customers want and need, and deliver customer value*.
  4. Organizations need to build structures, cultures, and capabilities that support professional project management.

* PMI follows the opening summary paragraph of this second section with the best quote of the report:

A great value proposition for project management is to find ways to reduce pain points within the organization and for customers’

Matthew Klein Jr, PMP
Farasis Energy, Half Moon Bay, California, USA
Quoted in the PMI Pulse of the Profession 2020 report: ‘Ahead of the Curve: Forging a Future-Focused Culture’

Ahead of the Curve: Three Conclusions

PMI says that their ‘2020 Pulse of the Profession report shows that leading organizations are adopting three tenets’. Whilst I’d agree that these tenets are important…

And I’d also expect that many organizations are increasingly adopting them…

I don’t find compelling evidence in this report. That is not to say the evidence is lacking in the base data PMI collected. But, as last year, the effort to create a short Executive Summary report has led PMI to play fast and loose with the links between its conclusions and the evidence.

However, here are PMI’s three conclusions, headed by their most egregious cliché: ‘The Future Starts Now’ (who was the copywriter for this report?)

  1. Ability is Agility
    Yup – we need to keep agile, fail fast, and adapt to change
  2. Technology Rules – but People Influence
    The best of the three – we need to embrace new technology but recognize that empathy, communication, and soft skills will remain at a premium. I bet the Egyptians said that when someone first invented the lever… ‘This will make life easier, but we still need to co-ordinate the workers to use the lever properly’.
  3. It’s a Project Leader’s World
    Funnilly enough, I wrote about this in a recent newsletter (No.194 – 13 Feb 2020). I’ll reproduce it below.

No More Project Managers?

The text of my 1 February Newsletter.
You can subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Last week I wrote about the changes to the PMI’s Project Management Professional examination, coming in July this year.

For me, the most interesting change is not the most significant.

The most significant change is the equal footing that Agile and hybrid project management will have, alongside the traditional, predictive approach.

That’s a huge change. What use will engineering and construction project managers have for those methods?

But the change in the domains is also important

And more interesting to me.

Currently, the exam follows five domains mapped to the current PMBOK Guide’s five processes. From 1 July, it will follow closely the PMI’s Talent Triangle:

  • People (42%)
  • Process (50%)
  • Business Environment (8%)

The percentages tell a story.

Ignoring ‘Business Environment’ for a moment (as PMI seems almost to be doing), the message is clear. People skills are (almost) as important, in this exam, as technical, process skills.

Put this another way…

I’d interpret this as saying:

‘Project Leadership skills are as important as Project Management Skills’

In 2012 I was approached by Pearson Education
They are the global publisher behind the many textbooks and trade paperbacks. A related division now runs all PMI’s exam centers. 

They have a hugely popular business book series called the ‘Brilliant’ series. And they asked me to write a follow-up to one of their best-sellers, ‘Brilliant Project Management‘.

I wrote ‘Brilliant Project Leader’. It puts leadership skills into a familiar Project Management framework.

The Best of us Have Been Leaders for Years. Decades, even.

Any project manager who is not leading, is not doing their whole job, in my view. That’s always been the case.

But what’s new… and welcome… is that PMI seems to be recognizing that fact. I hope the new focus on soft skills and leadership will last.

Who knows?

Maybe the next big rebrand of the PMI will see it renamed the PLI: the ‘Project Leadership Institute’.

My Conclusions about Ahead of the Curve: the PMI’s 2020 Pulse of the Profession Report

There is nothing to disagree with here. It’s a sound set of conclusions.

But this report is a massive missed opportunity. There is woefully little data and the conclusions it draws have a familiar same-old, same-old ring to them. When I said (disparagingly) above that they are conclusions ‘any group of Project Managers could have come up with, taking ten minutes chatting in a bar’, was I being fair?

I think I was.
I don’t want to upset PMI. But I stand by that remark.

Sorry, PMI.
I look forward to your annual Pulse of the Profession report. But this one is a huge disappointment.

In the words of my Latin teacher, one year:

‘Has the talent, but seems determined not to apply it.’

What do you think?

I may have missed something here. So, tell me what you think of ‘Ahead of the Curve’, the PMI’s 2020 Pulse of the Profession Report. I’d love for someone to spot something I missed.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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  • Hi Mike,
    Good to hear a different voice. In fact 5 minutes ago I was looking for 2019 pulse for inspirational purposes and reset my clock. I had exactly the same feeling. I could not believe that these were the reports for 2019 and 2020. I thought it was just a paper or something.
    Good luck Peter

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